Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Mosquito Consciousness


As we approach mosquito season, I thought you’d enjoy this post from August 3, 2013, reflecting on a story in Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, a book I set aside when it became “too magical” for me but have recently picked up again and finished reading with greater appreciation. Incidentally, this is the only book Steve Jobs had on his iPad when he died, and those attending his memorial service received a copy of it at his request.

Sometimes my spiritual life is just plain spooky. 

The morning I write this, my morning prayers on the deck were interrupted by the presence of what I thought to be a mosquito. Now I am considered quite juicy in the mosquito community, unlike my partner Wade, who never needs to use insect repellant as I do to keep the little vampires at bay. And though I had administered that sacred ointment, I thought it possible a missed spot might be too inviting. My heavy New Jerusalem Bible came in handy and dropping it on the pest proved fatal. 

Yet I immediately felt regret taking a life. I’m one of those people who take spiders and other critters (roaches excepted) outside where they belong and liberate flies and wasps from entrapment between windows and screens if I can, though the latter I do at some risk, for a sting sent me to the emergency room a few years back, in an ambulance no less.  

Examining the remains on the back cover of my Bible, I was no longer certain it was a mosquito, and the best I could do was hope that I had sent it on to its next and hopefully better life! Before you think what a gentle and kind person I must be, all of this is a little disingenuous because I am by no means a vegetarian. But though I can eat meat, I could never kill the animal who provided it. 

As you will remember from an earlier post, I am reading Paramahansa Yogananda’s autobiography, and today he finally found his primary guru, Sri Yukteswar. And here’s where it gets spooky, or synchronicitous or miraculous if you like. In answer to his devotee’s concern about mosquitos, the guru tells him, “Is the whole world going to change for you? Change yourself: be rid of the mosquito consciousness.” 

During one teaching session, however, the teenage Yogananda is distracted by a mosquito and, as it proceeded to dig “a poisonous ‘hypodermic needle’” into his thigh, he raised a hand to swat it, but then remembered ahimsa (non-violence). Yuksteswar  offered a puzzling response, “Why didn’t you finish the job?” 

When asked if he agreed with taking a life, the master replied, “No, but in your mind you had already struck the deathblow.” He went on to say that ahimsa means removal of the desire to kill, then explains, “This world is inconveniently arranged for a literal practice of ahimsa. Man may be compelled to exterminate harmful creatures. He is not under a similar compulsion to feel anger or animosity,” thus “overcoming the passion of destruction.” 

Of course the context verifies that “harmful creatures” applies only to dangerous insects or threatening wild animals. Yet even in that context, one is best not driven by anger or animosity. Jesus said something like this when he added to the commandment “You shall not murder” the more far reaching “if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.” Or added simple lust to “You shall not commit adultery.” 

If only I could achieve mosquito consciousness, realizing that they too, in the words of Yukteswar, “have an equal right to the air of maya,” I could leave them be and save money on bug spray. Maybe in my next and better life!


Copyright © 2013 Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. 

Tax-deductible donations may be made safely to the “Chris Glaser Archive” through the Tribute Gift section of The Center for LGBTQ and Gender Studies in Religion. 

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Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Free Time


Our neighbor Luna enjoying our bird bath.

Perhaps nothing sounds better on a schedule than “free time.” But it can be a source of anxiety for many—how will I fill up that time? Will I be bored? Will the moments be wasted? What am I to do? 

To be honest, though I have no problem spending leisure time with friends, when alone I have difficulty with leisure time. I like to work, I like to be constructive, I like to do things, I like to grow. But the idea of free time does sound luxurious. I love the popular song by Bruno Mars, “Today I Don’t Feel Like Doing Anything.” I wish I could live its ideal! 

In a video I use during my retreats on Henri Nouwen, Henri talks about how proud we are of being “busy, busy, busy,” buzzing these words like a bee! We brag about it to others, “Oh yes, I’m very busy.” I’ve met clergy who needed to go into detail about how busy they were to counter the misconception that they only work one hour per week! Henri describes our need to be “occupied,” or if not occupied, “preoccupied,” which he jokes as “occupying a space before you even get there”! 

This tension between work and idleness is why I begin my workday with morning prayers. There’s a lazy part of me that is attracted to a time when I don’t have to accomplish anything, and so this is a seductive way to begin my workday. Sure, I read various things during that time, but the goal is to spend time in reflection, meditation, and prayer. It can last anywhere from five minutes to two hours, depending on the day’s agenda. 

A counseling professor in seminary told of being assigned a child by the courts for therapy. Each visit, the kid said nothing, but wandered around the office looking at things in silence. In frustration, the professor told the child that he would ask the courts to assign another therapist. The child cried, “But I like coming here!” Astonished, the therapist asked why. “You’re the only adult who leaves me alone,” the child replied. 

Free time is perhaps the only time that leaves us alone. One possible origin of “scholar” is a word that means “leisure, rest, or free time.” Though most of us worked our way through various schools, we understand that luxury of having been students. I’ve never stopped being a student, though I did not go into academia as a vocation. And maybe that’s partly why I didn’t—I didn’t want my “free time” regulated, occupied, or preoccupied.


This post appeared September 4, 2013. Copyright © 2013 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. 

Tax-deductible donations may be made safely to the “Chris Glaser Archive” through the Tribute Gift section of The Center for LGBTQ and Gender Studies in Religion. 

Personal gifts may be made safely by clicking hereThank you!

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

"Nothing Soft about the Quest for a Significant Life"


Why I Write This Blog

[Four years into writing this blog, I posted this on February 11, 2015.]

On this week’s fourth anniversary of the beginning of Progressive Christian Reflections, I am reminded that motivations are myriad for doing anything. “What’s my motivation?” actors ask to play a given scene, as if a single motivation suffices for any human action. We are more complex than that! (Read Dostoyevsky!) The reasons I’ve given in the past for writing these reflections still apply, but every week, actually every day, I find new reasons.

Today’s reason is being stunned and stumped by a cover essay in a recent New York Times Book Review entitled “Among the Disrupted” by Leon Wieseltier, a contributing editor for The Atlantic and recently resigned literary editor of The New Republic, which was “disrupted” by a new boss wanting to go digital.

I am stunned by insights I agree with and stumped by things in it I don’t quite understand. I have read it multiple times, each time underlining phrases and sentences that give me an “aha” moment or that I need to puzzle over. If I read it many more times, the whole essay will be underlined. (I can’t read without a pen in hand, btw!) It stirred controversy, judging by letters in response and an article in the Observer.

If I had to summarize it in 25 words or less, it’s about our contemporary confusion of technology with meaning. As the author suggests, “The character of our society cannot be determined by engineers.” [2021 interjection: one of our dearest friends is an engineer! -crg]

Ridiculing “transhumanism,” the notion that computers and the internet “will carry us magnificently beyond our humanity” overcoming distinctions “between human and machine,” Wieseltier instead questions if we are just having another wave of posthumanism:

The notion that the nonmaterial dimensions of life must be explained in terms of the material dimensions, and that nonscientific understandings must be translated into scientific understandings if they are to qualify as knowledge, is increasingly popular inside and outside the university, where the humanities are disparaged as soft and impractical and insufficiently new.

The late Charles Townes, the Nobel laureate physicist behind the maser and laser who was also awarded the 2005 Templeton Prize for contributing to our understanding of spirituality, “saw science and religion as compatible, saying there was little difference between a scientific revelation, like his maser brainstorm, and a religious one,” according to The New York Times. Quoting from a 1966 essay:

“Understanding the order of the universe and understanding the purpose in the universe are not identical, but they are not very far apart.”

The parallel in my field are those who study, research, and teach religion “objectively” outside any personal faith. We need such “engineers,” as long as we take what they say with a grain of salt, which, as I mentioned quoting Colossians a few weeks ago, means with “spiritual understanding.” Early Christian catechumens were taught the meaning of baptism and Communion only after they had received those sacraments, because it was believed they could not comprehend what they had not first experienced. Spiritual understanding is an inside job.

Wieseltier asserts, “Aside from issues of life and death, there is no more urgent task for American intellectuals and writers than to think critically about the salience, even the tyranny, of technology in individual and collective life. All revolutions exaggerate, and the digital revolution is no different.” 

We live in an internet world “in which words cannot wait for thoughts, and first responses are promoted into best responses, and patience is a professional liability. … Digital expectations of alacrity and terseness confer the highest prestige upon the twittering cacophony of one-liners and promotional announcements.” 

Wieseltier’s solution is to “regard the devices as simply new means for old ends. … The new order will not relieve us of the old burdens, and the old pleasures, of erudition and interpretation. … Never mind the platforms. Our solemn responsibility is for the substance.” 

His answer is a welcome of humanism and the humanities, concluding, “There is nothing soft about the quest for a significant life.” 

I would add a welcome of spirituality and religion, also because there is nothing soft about a quest for a significant life. 

Entertaining these concepts and welcoming this conversation are additional reasons I write this blog.

Copyright © 2015 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. 

Tax-deductible donations may be made safely to the “Chris Glaser Archive” through the Tribute Gift section of The Center for LGBTQ and Gender Studies in Religion. 

Personal gifts may be made safely by clicking here.  Thank you!

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Why Progressive Christians Need Contemplation

Wade took this photo of me resting
on one of our bike rides.

Jesus told his disciples “a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart,” and, in his earliest known correspondence, the apostle Paul advised the Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing.”

The first Christian contemplatives took the notion of “praying always” to heart, and went out into the desert to pray, to preserve the “edge” of Christian faith even as church and state colluded in the fourth century. As Thomas Merton explained in The Wisdom of the Desert, 

The Coptic hermits who left the world as though escaping from a [ship]wreck did not merely intend to save themselves. They knew that they were helpless to do any good for others as long as they floundered about in the wreckage. But once they got a foothold on solid ground, things were different. Then they had not only the power but even the obligation to pull the whole world to safety after them.

The Desert Fathers and Mothers believed prayer was not about changing God’s mind or heart, but about their own transformation. God brings justice and mercy into the world one person at a time. Thus prayer and contemplation serve as grounding for those of us who seek the transformation of the world. This passion for transformation is one dimension of progressive Christianity. 

A second dimension is that we use our minds, our critical faculties, to approach our faith—texts, tradition, history, present, and future. But in the use of our minds we must not lose heart. We are not spiteful children who run around proclaiming “There is no Santa Claus!” to innocents. We are faithful people who affirm spiritual truths without literalist trappings. It is true that much progressive Christianity is about demythologizing and deconstruction. But in so doing, our hope is to recover the ancient meanings of the stories of our faith tradition, as well as their meaning for today. 

One way of recovering the ancient meanings of our faith tradition is through prayer and reflection. To participate in the biblical dialogue about God, meaning, virtue, and so on with our hearts as well as our minds is to be an authentic and integral part of an ancient tradition that was diverse in its viewpoints, heterodox in its theologies, and multiple in its expressions. 

A third dimension of progressive Christianity is that we plumb the depths of our faith even as we value other faiths, including agnosticism and atheism. Our multicultural world—not as different from the ancient world in its diversity as is often thought—offers opportunities for dialogue, not only across religious and cultural boundaries, but across disciplinary boundaries as well, as I recently wrote on this blog. Science, for example, is not an adversary, but an aid in understanding the world, religion, and spirituality itself.  The way of art and literature is another.           

Just as some Christians seem to have lost their minds, progressive Christians cannot lose our hearts. As Jesus said, “What benefit is there if, in gaining the whole world, we lose our soul?” We are not modern-day Gnostics who believe our “secret wisdom” will save us. Rather, we believe that knowledge frees us from superstition, sentimentality, and the “elemental spirits” that the apostle Paul confronted in Galatians. Our faith is not stupid, nor is it heartless. Prayer and meditation afford us the opportunity, as the Desert Mothers and Fathers taught, for words to descend from our minds to our hearts. Thus prayer and contemplation must become a fourth dimension of progressive Christianity. 

We may feel overwhelmed by the diversity of texts and traditions about Jesus, about God. Biblical scholars discuss the authenticity and accuracy of these accounts. Theologians debate their authority and application. Contemplatives reflect on their inspiration for the present. 

These thoughts have been further clarified from my post on the blog of Episcopal Divinity School around the time I began my own. 

Copyright © 2011 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. 

This post appeared August 17, 2011. I considered retiring from my blog on its tenth anniversary in February of this year but didn’t want to “abandon” readers during the pandemic! My brother suggested I run “the best of” my posts. This will give me the opportunity to write a new post occasionally. Thanks for your continued interest! 

Tax-deductible donations may be made safely to the “Chris Glaser Archive” through the Tribute Gift section of The Center for LGBTQ and Gender Studies in Religion. 

Personal gifts may be made safely by clicking hereThank you!